Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bath Buns

I made Bath Buns from Jane Grigson's Observer Guide to British Cookery--a recipe I have been wanting to make for more than twenty years. Why did it take me so long? I don't have an answer for that. Maybe because it's a yeast dough and I don't usually make yeast doughs, and because the measurements are by weight, and I only recently bought a kitchen scale, and also because crushing the sugar lumps seemed like a lot of work. Whatever the reason, I found it highly satisfying to finally make them, and to remember my trip to Bath.
I explained my tenuous connection to Jane Grigson in an earlier post. This particular recipe leaped out at me because when I lived in England for about five months in 1983, I made a pilgrimage by myself to Bath, mostly because of my love of Jane Austen. I photographed her home, saw the Roman baths, went to the Pump Room and heard a concert, and ate a Bath Bun. This was in the summer before my junior year of college, when I was staying in Glastonbury for about a month with a theater group. We performed an original miracle play written by one of my college professors, and I was the dancing angel.

I'm the one in the white dress at lower left. While we toured our little play around to churches in the area, I stayed with a family who were friends of my professor's, and who were acting in the play. It was a strange time for me. I loved Somerset, and I loved the other actors and the family I stayed with, but I didn't have any friends my own age. I spent a lot of time by myself when we weren't performing, taking day trips to places like Avebury and Bath and wandering in the countryside around Glastonbury. I wasn't used to traveling alone, but I got better at it.
I can't remember what the Bath Bun I ate in 1983 tasted like or whether what I made resembled it at all, but Jane claims this recipe is the one served in the Pump Room. She says "Cobb's the bakers in Bath, founded by James Cobb in 1866, have been making Bath buns from a recipe adapted from an original version of 1679 for over a hundred years." Here's the recipe, adapted a bit and with my parenthetical asides.

Cobb's Bath Buns

1-1/2 oz fresh yeast (I used 3 packages dried yeast)
1-1/2 oz. granulated sugar (I used 3 Tbsp.)
1/2 pt. water
15 oz. eggs (I used 7)
5 oz. strong white bread flour

30 oz. strong white bread flour
12 oz. softened butter (I used 2 sticks salted, 1 stick unsalted)
3 oz. granulated sugar (1/3 cup)
12 oz. broken up sugar lumps (I used 8 oz. and it was plenty sweet enough; see note below about sugar lumps)
pinch mixed spice (nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves are nice)
pinch salt
few drops lemon juice

Bun wash: Mix together
2 oz. sugar
5 Tbsp. water

more crushed sugar lumps

To make the ferment, mix the yeast and sugar in a large warmed mixing bowl and whisk in the water, which should be warmed to blood heat. Leave in a warm place to froth up--about ten minutes.

Beat in the eggs and flour. Tie in a plastic carrier (cover with plastic wrap) and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour.
Mix in the dough ingredients, kneading well together. (I tried to knead it on my silicone mat and had to add about 1/2 cup of additional flour to prevent it from sticking. Later I found a blog that addressed this problem in a recipe for Bath Buns by Elizabeth David; see the recommended method for kneading it in the bowl.) Put it back in the carrier and leave for another hour at least, or until the dough has doubled. This can take a good deal longer than an hour with a rich dough like this one, especially in a family kitchen which is not likely to be as warm as a bakery. (Mine took 2-1/2 hours.)
Knock back the dough and shape it into pieces the size of a small Cox's orange pippin. (This cracks me up--it's a small British apple variety. I divided the dough into 24 more or less equal pieces.) Place them on greased baking sheets. Cover again with plastic and leave to prove--about 30 minutes.

Preheat the over to gas 7, or 220 degrees C (425 degrees F). Bake the buns for about 20 minutes, swopping the trays round just after half time. Remove and brush the tops with bun wash, and sprinkle them with the crushed sugar lumps.

About the sugar lumps: I put sugar cubes in a plastic zip lock bag and crushed them with a rolling pin. It was hard to get them an even size. Much of the sugar crumbled into grains, and some lumps stayed as large as peas. My goal was to get them all about the size of small lentils. Maybe other lump sugar would be easier to work with. The idea is to get lumps of sugar into the dough so you occasionally crunch a lump of sugar. I ended up with so few workable lumps I saved them for the topping.
What my family thought:
"Bath buns? What does that mean? Do you eat them in the bath tub?" (My husband) "Mmmmm. Yum." (My sons) "I think you should re-brand them, since no one here knows what 'Bath' is. How about sugar crunch buns?" (My husband.) "Mmmmmm. Yum." (My sons.)
What I thought:
The sugar-lump-crushing difficulties were enough to discourage me from making them again, unless I could find sugar lumps already that size. Also you can see in the photo of Cobb's Bath Buns they have currants but Jane's recipe did not call for them. Cobb's buns are more charming than mine. But my Bath Buns were rich, buttery, and delicious for breakfast warmed, split, and spread with butter.

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